In May of 2017, a 146-year-old American institution, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth, closed forever. In a statement on the company’s website, Kenneth Feld, the chief executive of Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling, cited declining ticket sales. “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.” the statement said.

Although an estimated 10 million people went to a Ringling circus each year, the circus was not without controversy. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, had called for the removal of the elephants. Saying that forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary, activists targeted Ringling. This led to the removal of the elephants, which were among the most popular features of the shows.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had its origin in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum located in New York City in 1841. It featured exhibits, animals in a zoo-like setting, and freak shows. The museum burned down in 1865. Barnum tried to re-establish the Museum at another location in New York City, but it also burned down.

Meanwhile, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup had created a circus in Delavan, Wisconsin. They convinced P.T. Barnum to come out of retirement and to lend his name, know-how, and financial backing to their circus. The combined show was named “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome.” As described by Barnum, Castello and Coup “had a show that was truly immense, and combined all the elements of museum, menagerie, variety performance, concert hall, and circus.” Barnum considered it to potentially be “the Greatest Show on Earth.”

In the 1860’s, James Anthony Bailey and James E. Cooper had created the Cooper and Bailey Circus. This circus became the chief competitor to Barnum’s circus. The two merged and became the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

In 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin started a small circus. Their circus grew rapidly, and soon they were competing with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. When P.T. Barnum died in 1906, the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers.

In its heyday, the circus moved from town to town by railroad train. Each train was a mile long with roughly sixty cars. Tents, workers, performers, props, and animals all arrived on the circus train. There was even a traveling school for performers’ children.

The circus suffered during the Depression in the 1930’s, but it managed to stay in business. According to, “Special dispensation was given to the circus by President Roosevelt to use the rails to operate in 1942 in spite of travel restrictions imposed as a result of World War II.”

In 1956, circus officials announced that the circus would no longer perform under their own portable “big top” tents. Instead, the circus would use permanent venues, such as sports stadiums and arenas that had seating already in place.

Through the years, acts were updated. The 2016 show contained motorcycle daredevils as well as the traditional trapeze artists and animal acts. The program exuded glitz and energy.

—By Karen Centowski

To see a video of the circus, go to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus—With Elephants YouTube.